Navigating Respectful Discussion Around Polarising Topics




It is very natural and normal for humans to have differences of opinion. We are not all made to think and feel the same things and these differences are healthy and normal. However, there have been a number of times over recent years across the world where we have seen instances of significant divide and polarisation. Fundamental differences in opinion, beliefs and views are hard to navigate because they incite such emotion, passion and distress for those who are not on the same ‘side’. What makes it harder is when those people are family, friends, neighbours and colleagues.


The recent decision by the Supreme Court in the US to overturn Roe v Wade is an example of an event that has generated significant outpouring of feeling, opinion and global attention. It’s a highly triggering decision which will have a significant impact on many lives. Whether you are directly impacted or watching from afar, it’s likely you will have an opinion. This creates a timely point to consider how we handle and cope with potentially polarising events and how you can support yourself to navigate these times and the impact it can have on relationships in your life.


Conversations around polarised topics can do two things. They bring the people who agree with each other closer, they bond over the belief that the other group are wrong and and they position those with opposing views further and further apart. It creates more and more of a pole. If you’ve watched ‘The Social Dilemma’, you’ll know that our social media newsfeeds are being curated by algorithm’s, which only present us with information that supports our own world view. This is just one of many factors that can result in ‘group thinking’ or an ‘Us vs Them’ mentality, which is a way of thinking that favours individuals in your own social, political, or any other group and disapproves of those who belong to a different group. The Us vs Them mentality is dangerous because it allows you to make quick mental shortcuts and come to a conclusion based on what you already know about a group an individual is part of, rather than spend time getting to know the individual themself. And it also means you don’t always critique the thinking of those you perceive to be in your own group.


With such extremes it becomes harder and harder to have a productive conversation. Conflict and controversy grows and it culminates in unhelpful conversations fuelled by anger, fear, mistrust and confusion. It may seem like there is more controversy and conflict with those around us than ever. No doubt you have already had to face or witness some challenging conversations, whether in person with friends and family or online with people you may not even know. We know that these discussions can quickly become polarised, heated and personal, making it very difficult to have a conversation where different points of view are aired and discussed.


In order for us to talk across divergent opinions, broaden our own thinking and identify areas of common ground, we first need to prioritise respectful communication, so we can hear and understand our different perspectives.


We have included below a four point framework for respectful and thoughtful conversations - things to think about whenever you are having a difficult conversation with someone, no matter the topic.


Try To Cultivate an Attitude of Discovery and Curiosity, Rather Than an Attitude of ‘Winning’ an Argument


Are you both open to learning something from each other? Before you engage in a conversation with someone on the opposite side of the fence, ask them (and yourself) if you are both open enough to the possibility that your opinion could be changed. Are you willing to learn something from the other person? Is there any evidence that they could present you with today that would change your opinion? Are you open to hearing their side? Chances are, if it’s a random person on the internet that you have ever met, you probably won’t be likely to hear each other out respectfully, so it’s good to consider whether that is a good use of your energy. If the conversation is with someone you know, it's important to realize that the person you're speaking to has a reason for their beliefs too. Even if you know without a doubt that you disagree with their position, it's still possible (and helpful) to be curious about why they think the way they do and to be open to hearing their reasoning.


Remind yourself that we are all complex and multifaceted beings, with widely varying personal values and beliefs, and trying to ‘win’ an argument alone, won’t advance any meaningful discussion. Sometimes there is nothing more powerful than asking the simple question: “Why?” Learning about someone’s perspective can help you understand why you feel so strongly about your own. Whether you agree or not, seek to understand. You’ll almost certainly be better for it


Stop Talking, Start Listening


It might feel counterintuitive, but listening is far more persuasive than speaking. There is almost always more substance below the surface of what people say than there is in their words. Listen to what the other person is saying and acknowledge what you have heard and understood, and you’ll find that this encourages them to do the same to you. Try not to make assumptions about the other person, and never allow things to get too personal in a negative way. Just because you perceive them to have a bad opinion, this doesn’t make them a bad person. Different opinions can provide valuable different perspectives on life and its challenges for people.


Try Not To Let Things Get Too Heated by Staying As Centred as Possible


If you feel centred, you feel calm, confident, and in control of your emotions. A successful conversation will depend on your body language, and how you say things. If you are centered, and approach the conversation in a supportive, curious and problem-solving manner, this will greatly influence how you say things, and how the other person responds to you. Breathe, ground yourself, and continue to notice when you become off center – and choose to return again. Try not to take things personally - this is where your power lies. By choosing the calm, centered state, you’ll help the other person to stay centred too. And if things do get heated, don’t be afraid to put the conversation on pause and come back to it later. Saying something like, ‘I feel like things are getting heated, and I want us to understand each other, not argue. Maybe we can pick this back up later’, can help to diffuse the other person's emotions too.


Look To Find Common Ground


It’s important to remember the basic need to feel secure and understood is shared by all people. Focusing on commonalities can lead to a deeper understanding of another person, while focusing on differences will lead to arguments. There is no point engaging in the conversation if you are only coming from a place of judgement. It is completely understandable that around certain issues there are complicated emotions, especially in situations such as Roe V Wade, with both sides of the fence being so passionate. You are allowed to feel all of your emotions, they are all valid, but a divide will only be bridged by building trust and finding common ground that will allow everyone to move forward together.


Talking with people who disagree with you is important because it may bring opportunities to learn from others. Sometimes it is most helpful to just acknowledge your opposing viewpoints (respectfully) and accept that you likely won’t change each other’s minds. Ultimately, sometimes there are differences that are difficult to bridge, and we all must be willing to live with the fact that we may not agree on all things. This is a natural part of the reality of living in the world with other people. The more we can try to engage respectfully with those on the other side of the fence, the more we can begin to foster a culture where diverse perspectives are welcomed, embraced, and, ultimately, expected.


Finally - some self care! If you’re feeling stressed and distracted by the news, you’re not alone and that’s normal. There is a lot going on, and it can be hard to know how to cope when it feels like the world is falling apart every time you turn the news on. But it’s important to remember, the world isn’t actually falling apart. The world can be complicated, uncomfortable, and messy, and things can happen that do have terrible implications for people. But it’s also a beautiful place to be, filled of wonderful ways to celebrate being human. Some reminders from us:


  • Take a mental health day if you need it. You are no good to anyone if you feel like you are falling apart and you can’t focus. Sometimes we all need a day under the duvet and that’s okay.

  • Get outside and try to connect with nature. Put your feet in the ocean, in the soil, on the grass or sand-whatever you can connect with! Anything to ground yourself and remind you that there is still a lot of beauty in this world.

  • Turn the news off. Turn it off!

  • Connect with people who love you. The energy from good humans can be really healing. Go see a movie, grab a coffee, or just simply have a cry with a friend!